For some reason I had missed this film when it was released last Fall, and I kind of forgotten about it until it arrived on HBO Max this weekend. I’m not a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, after all I haven’t seen Isle of Dogs yet, but I enjoyed Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. The French Dispatch marks the first anthology from Wes, which also boast an incredible cast, most of them are his regulars you’ve seen in his previous movies, with narration by Anjelica Huston.
Anderson wrote the screenplay based on a story by Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness and Jason Schwartzman, who also had a small part in the movie. From the Making-Of video on HBO Max Wes was inspired by three things: French films, The New Yorker magazine that he grew up reading, and a collection of short stories, so this is his attempt to combine all three into a single film.
Bill Murray, staple in Wes’ movies, plays the editor in chief of an American expatriate newspaper called The French Dispatch in a fictional twentieth-century French town Ennui-sur-Blasé. When he died suddenly, his will reveals that the publication is to be suspended immediately with one final farewell issue in which four articles + an obituary are to be published. The anthology is comprised of those four articles and how each journalists bring those stories to life.
You don’t go see a Wes Anderson movie for grounded, gritty realism… his films are often surrealistic, quirky and bizarre… so definitely not for everyone. His penchant for symmetry in every shot, his distinct color palette, as well as other directorial signatures like lateral tracking shots, are present in this movie. The use of color is notable in that it switches from black/white to color in some story segments, which seems arbitrary to me but perhaps it signifies something that’s lost to me.
The first story of the Cycling Reporter with Owen Wilson kind of went by so fast that I was mostly admiring the gorgeous French town. His character is inspired by Bill Cunningham as the character was giving the viewers a tour of the town. The film was shot entirely in Angoulême in southwestern France, which is a character in itself.
I think the second article, The Concrete Masterpiece is my favorite of the four articles, which strangely enough is the most straight-forward, at least to me. Tilda Swinton presents the story as a staff member of The French Dispatch, and the story key players are Benicia Del Toro as a mentally-challenged artist/prison inmate named Moses Rosenthaler; Léa Seydoux as the prison guard and Moses’ muse Simone; and Adrien Brody as an art dealer who was once jailed together with him for tax evasion. I was quite engrossed by the whole ordeal, the relationship between Moses and Simone is equally strange and beguiling. It’s the first nude scene I’ve seen in a Wes Anderson movie, but the scene is not sexualized as Simone is an artist’s nude model where she also gets to do some interesting artistic poses. I find is quite amusing that Seydoux is nude in this movie while remains fully clothed in both Bond movies she did.
The third story Revisions to a Manifesto star Frances McDormand as the Dispatch’s staff writer covering the student protests, Timothée Chalamet and Lyna Khoudri as the students revolutionaries. I kind of spaced out a bit during most of the scenes here, I don’t think the story is all that interesting to me and the actor pairings seem the most jarring of the rest. Perhaps if I were more familiar with the real historical event of May 1968 student protests that happened throughout France, I might enjoy it more. McDormand’s character is apparently based on Mavis Gallant, a Montreal journalist based in Francse who covered the event.
In the last story, The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner, Jeffrey Wright as a food journalist is the most intriguing bit of this story. The story is framed as a broadcasting piece, Liev Schreiber plays a talk show who interviews Wright who retells the story of a kidnapping in flashback. Wright is always a strong and charismatic presence in everything he does, so he kept me invested in this whole strange ordeal. I was a bit lost in this bit and the remarkable production design serve as a good diversion to amuse oneself when the story isn’t particularly engaging. The long tracking shot when Wright visits the police station is phenomenally-crafted, you just have to see it to marvel at the meticulous details.
So in that regard, the biggest kudos goes to cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman and art director Adam Stockhausen who did the production design of the whole movie. Per Wiki, Stockhausen envisioned a town which “felt like Paris but not as it is today – more a sort of memory of Paris, the Paris of Jacques Tati.” You could say the film is an artistic and set design showcase, I could easily watch an hour doc just on the making of this film alone, along with the beautiful costume design work by Milena Canonero (love the dress Tilda wore during her presentation in the second segment). The lively score by Alexandre Desplat fits the whimsical tone of the movie perfectly, it reminds me a lot of his work for The Grand Budapest Hotel.
One of the highlights of this movie for me is the animation scenes by Gwenn Germain. It’s absolutely stunning to watch and helps with the storytelling, particularly an action-heavy segment that’s tough to film. I’m a huge fan of Georges Remi aka Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin which was apparently one of the main inspirations. Boy, I would love to see Wes Anderson collaborate with Germain to do an animated version of one of the Tintin comics!
The French Dispatch is an amusing movie that’s fun to look at, but kind of feels empty. Ironic that this one is billed as a love letter to print journalism, any decent journalist would tell you that narrative is king in storytelling. There’s little emotional resonance in most of the disjointed stories… there’s a touch of humanity in the relationship between Moses and Simone, but it’s not allowed to go any deeper for it has to jump to the next. Out of all the stories, this is the one I could perhaps watch as its own film. Overall, I see Wes Anderson movies like works of art in a museum, I don’t always get the meaning of a piece and some are even too weird for one’s taste, but you still appreciate the creativity and artistry that goes into it.
Have you seen The French Dispatch? What did YOU think?